David Marr, Power Trip: The political journey of Kevin Rudd (Quarterly Essay 38)
In Quarterly Essay 36, Mungo MacCallum explored the miasma of myth and collective emotion that, he argued, accounted for Kevin Rudd’s popularity. Rudd’s recent plummet in the polls suggests that the popularity may actually have been based on more concrete factors, such as his promising stand on global warming, but the essay was a good read nonetheless. Two issues further on, the series once again addresses (I nearly said ‘attacks’) the Rudd phenomenon. David Marr asks not what we see in Rudd, what we hope of him, what he stands for, not centrally whether his leadership is effective or his policies correct, but ‘Who is he?’ It’s a fair enough question. There is something oddly impersonal in his media persona, a sense not so much that he’s hiding something as that he doesn’t know how to show himself. There have been baffling moments, especially his odd, televised disregard for Kristina Keneally.
The question is fair enough, but I’m not sure the answer gets us anywhere much. A cruel short version would be: ‘Kevin Rudd yelled at me when I told him he was an all round disappointment, so now I know that rage is at his core.’ David Marr writes well, and he marshalls biographical facts into a coherent story, sifting through the hostile and hagiographic scuttlebuck alike, for which much thanks. But in the end, the essay is unsatisfying. His strategy of beginning with Rudd’s use of expletives about the Chinese at Copenhagen and ending with a moment when Rudd sets his diplomat’s blandness aside and tears strips of the writer (in private, quietly, in response to provocation) may be structurally satisfying, but the conclusion that anger is Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’ is a wee bit tenuous. Perhaps I identify with Rudd, as a mostly mild-mannered Catholic man from rural Queensland who uses four-letter words and gets cranky when personally attacked. I imagine David Marr himself swears occasionally and has the odd tantrum – at least I hope he does for the sake of his mental equilibrium.
Tellingly, Kevin Rudd’s response, as reported by the ABC, was a verbal shrug: ‘Commentators, writers, analysts – they will draw their own conclusions.’
But a distinctive feature of the Quarterly Essay series is that it promotes discussion. No doubt all manner of responses will be aired in Nº 39. Here, the title essay accounts for roughly two thirds of the book, leaving the remaining 40 odd pages to discussion of Waleed Aly’s essay last quarter on conservatism. As a first, a number of voices from the neo-right have appear in these pages, many of them doing their usual polemic attack on straw men. Jean Curthoys (not from the right) suggests that Aly really needs a dose of social democracy. Martin Krygier’s piece makes me decide that if I ever make him cross I’d better lay low. And Aly responds to all comers with precision, grace and – in one or two cases undeserved – respect.